Outside the Box: Kevin O'Donovan

Kevin O’Donovan, Hiscox London Market’s Head of Casualty Pricing, explains the lure – and traps – of owning a greyhound.

It all started in January last year at my friend’s wedding back home in Ireland. His father trains greyhounds for a living and while we were having a few pints of Guinness on the night before the wedding it was suggested that we should get my friend a dog for a wedding present. That idea took root, and we decided to form a syndicate to buy and own a greyhound. Last May, after looking at a couple of potential candidates, our friend’s Dad bought a dog for us called Knocknacree Sky.

Greyhound coursing and racing is very big back in Ireland. Family and friends will often meet for a night out at the local dog track, where they’ll book a table overlooking the track and have a meal while watching the races. I’d been to the track in Tralee when I was growing up, but that was all. Buying the dog was really just an excuse for our group of friends to keep in touch now that everyone’s married and we’re living in different places: a couple are now in the US, while some of the rest of us are dotted around Europe.

We’re known as the Bark Wahlberg Syndicate, because we played football together when we were at university as Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch FC, after Mark Wahlberg’s short-lived rap collective. It still makes me smile when I see our name in the greyhound-racing page of The Kerryman, our local paper.

Buying the dog was really just an excuse for our group of friends to keep in touch now that everyone’s married and we’re living in different places.

Pre-race nerves

Owning one of the runners gives you an extra sense of anticipation when you go to a meeting. Before the race, we’ll discuss what his chances are that night, if the weather suits him, if he’s been drawn in a good trap, and what sort of form the other runners are in. In fact, the discussions take much longer than the actual race, which is over in a flash!

Also, as an actuary, I’m fascinated by the trackside bookies. I reckon I could give it a go with my laptop and a spreadsheet, although some use laptops, most of them appear to do it all in their heads. They seem to have a gut instinct for what odds to set, which, to me, is a throwback to the days before computer risk models.

There has been some discussion of whether we should create a spreadsheet to help us to work out what are our dog’s chances in a race, so we have a better idea of whether we should back him or instead keep our money firmly in our pockets.

The groom’s father bought him because he had run good times for a dog of his age, and he soon delivered on that promise by winning his first race at our local track in Tralee, when he came out of his trap “like a scalded cat”, according to the race report in our local paper. That earned him a shot at the big time -- racing in Dublin.

So far, he’s earned us €240 for that first win in Tralee, but that didn’t go far between 14 of us.

A dog’s life

In his first race at Shelborne Park, our dog got drawn in the innermost trap. Greyhounds, I’ve now learnt, divide into two groups: narrow runners and wide runners. Narrow runners like to hug the inside of the track when they’re racing, so they like being drawn in the inside traps. Wide runners, on the other hand, don’t like to take a tight line around the corners and so do better if they start from the outside traps. Our dog is a wide runner, which meant that after they were let out he veered across the course, got caught up in the pack and was tripped up by another dog. He trailed in last.

His next race in Dublin saw him drawn again in an inner trap, with the same results. He raced again in October, where again he got drawn in an inside track, and, again, ran sideways into the pack. Another dog tripped him up again, but this time he ended up crashing into the track wall. He suffered a hairline fracture in his shoulder, and so hasn’t raced again since then.

But we’re still hoping for big things from him. He’s now back in training, so we’re hoping he’ll be racing again soon. He’s run in a couple of unofficial trials and set A1 times, which are the third highest grading. We expect him to be back on the track in Tralee or Limerick again soon.

So far, he’s earned us €240 for that first win in Tralee, but that didn’t go far between 14 of us, especially taking into account his weekly kennel fees of €70. We’re dreaming that from now on he’ll do really well and then he’ll earn us hundreds of thousands of euros in stud fees when he retires. His injury, we hope, will become part of the fairytale story of his life and career. You’ve heard of the tale of Seabiscuit – we’re going to call ours Dog Biscuit!

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